Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Beyond Distribution Requirements

The community colleges in my state have a common framework for distribution requirements for general education courses.  An Associate of Arts degree has to have 45 (out of 60) credits in gen ed; an Associate of Science has to have 30; an Associate of Applied Science has to have 20.  In each case, the gen ed distribution is pretty prescriptive. For the AA, for instance, nine credits must be in “communication,” including six in English Comp. There’s a bit of variation allowed, but even the variation is tightly prescribed.  

The “distribution requirement” model -- so many courses from column A, so many from column B -- has the advantage of relative clarity.  Different states structure it differently, and there are some wild cards, but the basic idea is to ensure that any graduate with a particular degree category can be assumed to have passed something in a given category.  If the framework aligns with local four-year schools, it can help with transfer of credits. (Ours doesn’t, and even gets in the way, but that’s a separate discussion of issues unique to New Jersey.) It also establishes a certain predictability of shares of enrollment across disciplines, which can make it easier to know how many sections of a given class to run.

But a distribution requirement is essentially a checklist.  It operates on the debatable assumption that the whole is equal to the sum of the parts.  And faculty in departments with required courses quickly make the connection between presence on the list, steady enrollment, and job security.  If you ever want to watch faculty panic, try engaging in a discussion of removing a given category from the checklist. A list that may or may not have been developed based on some sort of educational theory quickly becomes an artifact of interest-group politics.  Given that the total number of credits in a degree program is zero-sum, any new requirement has to come at the expense of an existing one; the department whose ox is being gored can be counted on to storm the barricades. As a result, old frameworks tend to linger long past their rationales.

(That’s not just stereotyping; I’ve lived it.  When I was at CCM, in putting together a proposal for what became the Communications program, I inadvertently discovered that the “health and wellness” course requirement was merely local, and not part of the state framework.  Many evening, adult, and online students took an online health course in which they claimed to exercise. That struck me as silly, so I developed and advocated for a proposal without a health and wellness course. It passed, after a vigorous and ugly debate, and the department chair for health never spoke to me again.)

A distribution requirement, no matter its specifics, will tend towards rigidity and perverse incentives.  I’m wondering if there’s a better way.

When a ‘general education’ becomes a checklist, we effectively substitute breadth for coherence.  We assume that one social science is the same as any other, for instance. I have yet to see a credible educational theory by which it’s reasonable to treat sociology, economics, political science, and psychology as interchangeable.  Anyone who knows anything about those fields can rattle off a long chain of differences, ranging from methods to assumptions to subject matter. But on the ground, we treat them as fungible all the time.

Moving from a distribution requirement to another model would be an adventure; I both concede the point and bracket it.  The more interesting question is whether there’s something better to think about moving to.

Four-year colleges that don’t accept many transfer students can get pretty idiosyncratic in their gen ed requirements, because they control the entire process.  But we transfer students onward (and inward!), so we can’t get terribly quirky. I’m looking for something that could work at a statewide level.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a statewide (or similarly broad) model that works at the two-year level that doesn’t involve a distribution requirement?  If so, how did it work?